I have been going to Verve for years, ever since my friend Josh recommended them. I also used to visit a lot for my afternoon cup, to study, or when a new friend comes into town. I have gotten friendly with a few of their baristas. I generally have an above and beyond experience. I always get caps and they are always great. These guys are pros, you can’t deny it. Competition/business/image aside, these guys are really great at what they do. Even though I worked for the competitor, I have to hand it to them, they do a great job. I have been to their roasting facility, talked with many of their staff, seen the business evolve, and I am happy that they can excel at their take on coffee. I would never discourage someone from going there, but I do not think they are the be all end all of coffee; there are a lot of good products out there and Verve is definitely one of them, though they bill themselves as “coffee gods.”
As a disclaimer, I truly love Verve because they are one of the better companies. However, the reviews on the site are highly critical because I am looking at “the best of the best.” So, while this store is excellent, I am comparing to other stores that are excellent and more specifically, contrasting it with the other Verve locations. I’ve wrestled with writing a review of this particular store ever since they opened. Though I am acuainted with many of their staff and attended the intial “friends and family” pre-opening day, I did not want my biases to reflect unfairly or in an overly judgmental way. After close to a dozen visits, I have decided. What I initially experienced is a phenomenon that has stuck with me every single visit: the quality of this particular store is lackluster in comparison to their other locations.
Despite many visits, my mind has not changed. I really want to love this store as much as 41st and Branson, but I just cannot get over my previous experiences. I am writing this article based on one particular visit and the general vibe I have gotten in the past. We entered the store and checked out some retail equipment for kicks. We looked around the store a bit and considered ordering but were a bit hesitant. It took 7 minutes for any of the three baristas to acknowledge us and finally ask if we needed anything. Not saying, “hi” to customers when we first walked in is totally acceptable, a few minutes is fine too, but the store was not busy in the late afternoon and we were the only potential new customers in the store during that time. Picking up on this, they engaged us in friendly conversation and after a few minutes my buddy ordered a straight espresso.
From that point on, the entire process of making and serving the espresso was mired by strange little annoyances, things that weren’t necessarily bad but certainly off putting. Right after we ordered, my friend asked what kind of bean she was pulling. She told us Street Level, “if it’s up to my standards.” Good to know she had high standards, I’d expect no less, but it felt less of an attempt at being earnest and more of a “muscle flex.” I sat and watched her technique. Sometimes habits are preferential, but a few things she did were strange to see at a competition-level shop. My basis for comparison was that I have not seen other baristas at the other stores utilize her techniques, so this was likely not a “training standard.” When she was dosing, she was lightly tapping the bottom of the portafilter on the grinder. Suddenly, she started “slamming” it to settle the grinds (slamming as in loudly and rather forcefully hitting metal on metal, not enough to shoot grounds everywhere but enough to turn heads). It was odd, maybe because it lacked finesse or because I thought it was going to cause problems with pack. Afterward, she weighed out the grounds and started tamping. Instead of laying the portafilter flat on the counter, she angled it at about 45 degrees away from her and tamped mid-air. Again, I would imagine this would make leveling and tamping difficult since she had nothing to brace it on and she couldn’t really see how straight the tamper was entering the portafilter. Finally, she put the shot in, pre-infused, and let it run. She threw the first one away and repeated the process twice more. So, she had to pull the shot 3 times to get one that was “acceptable.” This was good and bad for me. I really appreciate that Verve trains their baristas to a degree where they can visibly catch errors and check for quality. I also really appreciate how they allow their baristas the freedom to toss shots and repeat the process as many times as needed. At the same time, why did it take three times to get it right? Should it have taken that many tries?
After what was now about three minutes, she announced that this one, “was a winner.” This was her way of being chatty and friendly, but to me, this and the previous comments and circumstances came off as a bit arrogant. The shot was good, but not great. It had great body and texture, though I lend that partially to the quality of the Strada. The flavor was, in all honesty, a bit bland, even for Street Level. I generally prefer SL over the Sermon when I order caps from Verve and I think it works better in milk. As a straight espresso, there was nothing particularly unique about it, not a whole lot of depth or character. While on the spectrum of specialty coffee it was excellent, I have had better shots of Verve coffee from other stores and the other Verve stores; the sermon I was served over at the Sentinel Cafe the previous day was excellent. Pulling Street Level was the barista’s choice.
After atleast a dozen trips to the Pacific Store, I am dissatisfied with the inconsistantancey in customer service and the product. I have had great caps, and I have had ones that are warm, flat, and disproportioned. I have been met with high energy, enthusiasm, and a really caring attitude, but I have also been slammed with snobriety, attitude and coldness. On this particular visit, it definitely felt like we had been hit with the “B” team; so so baristas who were friendly enough but not entirely hospitable or passionate compared to their veteran baristas. It seemed as though they just didn’t care on the level I experienced from Verve, thus why I refer to them as a “B” team. At both Bronson and the 41st store, I have never had a problem with drink quality, they have always set the bar extremely high. Here, I have had “good” but not great stuff.
The lack of consistancy is very important. If I am going to spend a good amount of money on a drink, I want to know I am getting “Verve quality” and not have the possibility that my drink isn’t “a winner.” I know most of the staff (or atleast, I can recognize them) and I know whom belongs to which location. If I see Paul, Chris, or someone from 41st on the bar at Pacific, I will absolutely go in. If I see a Pacific staff at another location, I generally don’t order. That sounds snobby, but that is how important consistency is for me. Verve has set a high standard, puts out an image of top knotch quality, so I expect it. I do not want to have to wait for a “good” barista to be on bar for the day. Furthermore, if Verve Pacific is going to bill themselves as part of a “godly” coffee company, they should deliver.
The space of the store is weird in more ways than one. Not only is the large space waiting space almost uninviting, you are not exactly encouraged to stick around either. Many patrons have expressed their dissatisfaction with the seating layout (lack of it) and the very deliberate installation of a single outlet for the whole store (though I would like to state that Lulu’s is infamous for a similar endeavor). While I can agree that the space is a little weird , it is a beautiful store that was well designed and decorated with the utmost care. The aesthetic is not my real issue. My issue is the location. Let’s face it, downtown Santa Cruz has plenty of coffee shops. Excluding SB and Pete’s, there are atleast 7 shops on Pacific alone and several more on the adjacent streets. Some are good, some are not, but Verve is not the only quality shop on Pacific Avenue. The placement of the Verve store directly accross the street from Lulu Carpenter’s, whom they have a history of rivalry with, is a wonderful business strategy but in my opinion a little uncooth. I know Verve was shopping around for places on Pacific and for whatever reason, personal or financial, the selection of this retail space appears strategic and intentional. I am happy with healthy competition, but the attitudes and comments I have received from the staff about my former employer and hearsay from patrons (which I will keep off this site) indicates to me that this “coffee battle” is not exactly healthy. Personally, I think the feud is a bit childish with a lot of “they started it.” Whether or not the owners of these companies actually set out to create direct and “stone’s throw away” competition, customers have fueled this battle into a “war.” Speculate away.
One thing I cannot get over is the attitude. Yes, they are good, and they kind of wear their superiority like a badge on their shoulder. Like I have said, they are experts, but for whatever reason they have this tendency to alienate others in the coffee world or those who do not subscribe to the “hip” way of doing coffee. This is not unlike any other art, business, craft, or what have you. It isn’t wrong, but I think it misses a huge part of what coffee is about; sharing and caring. A friend of mine put it like this, “They are like the cool kid in school. The cool kid wants to be cool, wants everyone to think they are cool, and isn’t exactly nice about it. For whatever reason, everyone wants to be friends with the cool kid regardless of that attitude. It’s new, it’s cool, it is a bit pretentious, and it’s likable all at the same time.” Cannot say I disagree, but I also admire their confidence. I have had other baristas convince me otherwise, that these guys are “humble” doing their own thing, but no, fedex trucks out of your new roasting facility and two Stradas (which one is almost never used) on the bar of their Pacific “knock out Lulu’s” store says otherwise.
While I can agree that this level of pride and accomplishment has been earned at the 41st location, I do not think the Pacific store is of the same caliber. Thus the swagger I get from their baristas is not only irritating but unearned. If you want to say you are “Verve” and you are “the best” then make sure you are putting out drinks and service that are of the same level of quality. Until then, keep improving and growing; you guys are still putting out some of the best stuff around.
- That Verve does what it does well and creates an image for itself
- Strange, but many customers and I have chatted about the lighting
- That Verve is making a name for Santa Cruz as a coffee scene